After a hearty breakfast, we depart for Homosassa Springs and begin our manatee awareness program. The program covers the many facets of manatees in Florida including manatee history, habitat, behavior, anatomy, aw well as the laws affecting these gentle giants and culminates with swimming with the manatees. Manatees, like humans are susceptible to cold and hypothermia and cannot survive for extended periods when water temperatures fall below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The water in the springs is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit providing a warm water escape from the cold gulf waters. Don’t worry- all participants swimming with manatees will be suited with a complete wetsuit. After our swimming experience, we return to Marine Science station where we will refuel with a picnic lunch. For our next adventure, we board a boat, grab our snorkel gear and begin our drift snorkel along the Rainbow River. While drifting down the crystal clear waters, (wearing a wet suit and snorkel gear), we will see a flourishing ecosystem of aquatic vegetation, a wide variety of fish, numerous turtles, and even fossilized shark teeth blowing from spring vents that dot the river bed. Our full day comes to a beautiful close as we watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, returning to the Marine Science Station for dinner and a well-deserved rest.
Armed with a new appreciation for this gentle and endangered mammal, we leave the manatees behind for the next phase of our exploration of Florida’s unique springs. When we arrive in the town of Gainesville, we will head straight to the Florida Museum of Natural History to discover the hall of Florida fossils, the butterfly rainforest, waterways and wildlife and south Florida people and environments exhibits and much more. After exploring the museum, we travel to Devil's Mill Hopper State Geological Site for lunch and investigation of this 120 feet deep and 500 feet across sinkhole. We have the opportunity to travel down a half mile via a 232 step stairway to the bottom of the sink. After our close-up look at the sinkhole, we head south and arrive in Ocala to explore the headwaters of the beautiful Silver Springs, the largest artesian spring formation in the world. We will view the underground springs from glass bottom boats, where we can catch a glimpse of the life below the surface and see fish, shellfish, turtles and alligators in water that is up to 80 feet deep. We’ll explore the dry ground as well and experience the natural habitats of Florida, participating in one of the many wildlife shows including Birds of Prey, Snakes and Reptiles. Leaving Ocala, we head south to the Sebring area and our evening’s destination, Camp Sparta. In our cabins, we prepare for a full evening of activities, including a genuine Native American campfire, story telling and our ever-popular Spirit Creature game.
The next morning we will follow in the footsteps of Captain Francis LeBaron as we set out to discover fossil wonders of our state, much as he may have done in 1881! The trip will begin at Highlands Hammock State Park, one of Florida´s oldest parks, opening to the public in 1931. Here, we will learn about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and all the work they did throughout America's parks. While walking on a board walk, we explore another of Florida’s beautiful and vital ecosystems, a cypress swamp. As we travel through the pristine clear water among the Cypress trees, we discover the sights and sounds of this important habitat. Our next stop is Archbold Biological Research Station, where students will investigate the endangered Florida scrub ecosystem and its endemic species, including the captivating scrub jay- a bird with great biological significance and a great personality! After a hearty lunch, we will travel to Joshua Creek, known for its wide variety of fossils and authentic Native American artifacts. This creek runs next to a Calusa Indian mound and it is not uncommon to find beads and an occasional arrowhead here. We’ll learn how to hone our fossil hunting skills, finding ancient treasures. Many sharks teeth and perhaps a manatee rib bone later, we'll then travel to our campsite, settle into our cabins, stow our treasures and enjoy a great "home cooked" meal topped off with a campfire and s’mores!
After breaking camp the next morning, we'll whisk away for the core of Bone Valley, traveling through phosphate mining country to Arcadia and our canoe trip down the Peace River! After our canoeing skill and safety lesson, we'll launch our canoes into the meandering river, where we're bound to spot turtles and many varieties of native birds. Students will discover the real Florida of the past as they use specially designed tools to screen through black phosphate pebbles on the sandbars and river bottom. The diversity of fossils is amazing- shark teeth, sting ray mandibles, three toed horse teeth, camel teeth, dugong ribs and mastodon molars are some of the treasures to be found. Following a picnic lunch, we'll head home. The bus will become a "traveling museum", as we identify and categorize our finds...and learn to make shark tooth jewelry. Stories of this unique Florida experience will resonate long after the bus returns home.